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Chilean Protests: Is it Still Safe to Travel to Chile?

Despite Chile’s reputation as one of the safest and most politically stable countries in South America, on Friday the 18th of October, protests erupted in various neighbourhoods across the capital city, Santiago, and have since spread to other cities across the country.

The Los Heroes statue in Downtown Santiago, Chile
The capital city, Santiago, has borne the brunt of protests since they broke out on Friday 18th of October

What happened between October and December 2019?

The protests began following a 4% hike in fares for Santiago’s metro service, with university students and high-school students calling on passengers to jump over the metro turnstiles to avoid paying the higher fees.

Since then, the protests have developed to encompass a movement to force the right-wing government, led by sitting president Sebastián Piñera, to improve living conditions. The context of the demonstrations is a society where rising living costs and low wages have resulted in high levels of inequality.

Since October, these demonstrations have escalated to violent protest, with metro stations and other buildings set alight. After President Piñera announced a State of Emergency, the military was deployed and over 20,000 soldiers are now on the streets of the capital and in other parts of the country.

On Friday 25th of October, an estimated 1.2 million people marched through Santiago in protest, a number that represents more than 5% of the country’s population. This was the largest demonstration of its kind since the country returned to democracy following the Pinochet dictatorship of the 70s and 80s.

Water cannons and tear gas have been used to disperse protesters and the current death toll stands at at least 20, with hundreds believed to have partially lost sight due to being shot by rubber bullets. Accusations of the use of extreme force and torture by the military and police are being investigated by the Instituto Nacional de Derechos Humanos (National Institute of Human Rights), while the UN is also sending a team to investigate these claims.

On Monday 28th of October, Piñera fired and replaced eight members of his cabinet in an attempt at quelling the protests. However, many protesters are instead calling for his resignation.

On Friday 19th of November, protesters secured a promise from the government that a plebiscite on writing a new constitution would be held on April 26 2020, with the body responsible for the new constitution being chosen in October of the same year and the document being put to a final vote in 2021.

However, protesters continue to demonstrate their anger towards the government and calls for President Piñera to stand down continue. Small protests in Santiago and across other parts of the country continue.

What’s happening now?

In early February 2020, protests reignited in the capital, Santiago, with four dead in a series of violent protests.

In late February 2020, violent clashes between protestors and police took place outside Hotel O’Higgins, a hotel in which performers for the Viña del Mar Festival (an annual event in the city) were staying.

As of the end of February, it seems that protesters are gearing up for more demonstrations in the capital city, Santiago throughout the month of March. Marches are planned to be held throughout the month, with the biggest falling each and ever Monday and Friday of the month of March.

A large protest is planned for Sunday 8th of March, Women’s Day.

These will be focused in and around Plaza Italia (now Plaza de la Dignidad), with additional protests in vehicles and on bikes planned for Monday 2nd of March and Tuesday 31st of March.

With a plebiscite on the new constitution set for April 26th, it very likely that protests will continue from early March until (and perhaps even beyond) this date.

Recommendations on the ground from local tour operator Travolution:

We would like to remind everybody who is thinking about visiting Chile, that the protests are concentrated in big cities (Santiago, Valparaíso, Antofagasta y Concepción). 

In Santiago, the recommendation is to stay away from Plaza de la Dignidad area after 16:00 pm and to be informed by using the media referenced below.

For Valparaiso, the best places to visit are safe and the recommendation would be to avoid going around alone (as Valparaiso may be as a labyrinth). If you can do it with a guide that knows the streets, you won’t have any problems.

Other places in Chile are completely safe and all services are running normally.


Finally, we strongly recommend being informed about the places you are going to stay or visit when going to big cities. You can ask us for any information you may need.

How will international visitors be affected by the protests in Chile?

It remains to be seen what impact the planned protests throughout March will have on Santiago and wider Chile.

While small protests are continuing – mainly focussed around Plaza Italia in Santiago – all tourist infrastructure in the city is back up and running as normal.

Arson and looting took place when the protests were in full swing, while road blocks were preventing buses and other transport from travelling in different parts of the country, however this is no longer the case.

In case of a new outbreak of protests, if you speak Spanish, Chilean news agency T13 has rolling coverage and updates on their website, as does BioBio Chile on their Twitter account. The Santiago Municipality’s Twitter account also has information about the status of tourist attractions in the capital, as do Disfruta Santiago.

The Catedral in Downtown Santiago, Chile
Downtown Santiago has been the focal point for protests, some of which have turned violent

Updates about the situation in Santiago:

  • Marches are planned to be held throughout the month, with the biggest falling each and ever Monday and Friday of the month of March. These will take place in and around Plaza Italia (now Plaza de la Dignidad) from around 4pm.
  • Additional protests in vehicles and on bikes are planned for Monday 2nd of March and Tuesday 31st of March. These could affect transportation to and from the airport.
  • Readers have generally reported feeling safe in and around the city (although none have approached the demonstrations).
  • International and domestic flights are running as normal.
  • Airport transfer services including TransVip and Delfos are still operating as normal and can be booked online. However, roadblocks have disrupted transport to the airport. This could happen if vehicle protests start again in March, so be sure to contact your transfer service at least 24 hours in advance of your planned transfer to ensure that everything is working as necessary.
  • Public transport, including the metro and services to and from the airport are operating regularly throughout the day. Most metro stations are back up and running and you can find a handy diagram of the functionality of the entire metro system here to see which remain closed.
  • Bus stations in Santiago are opening are usual.
  • Central and Downtown Santiago is bearing the brunt of the demonstrations. Demonstrations are based around Plaza Italia (the southern edge of Barrio Bellavista). These will take place every Monday and Friday throughout March, from around 4pm/5pm, so avoid this square and the streets around it.
  • All of the tourist neighbourhoods are operating as normal.
  • Banks, shops and supermarkets are operating as normal, although many of the international supermarkets have been damaged in the protests.

Travelling outside of Santiago

Bus services are running as usual.

Domestic flights are operating as usual.

Valparaiso

In Valparaiso, protests are continuing in and around Plaza Anibal Pinto (from this square down Esmeralda to Plaza Sotomayor), where protests tend to take place on Mondays and Fridays from around 5pm.

The tourist destinations (Cerro Alegre and Cerro Bellavista) are operating as normal, but it’s wise to avoid the area around Plaza Anibal Pinto and Plaza Sotomayor.

If you have plans to visit Valparaiso in March 2020, I strongly recommend you reach out to your hotel before heading to the city to find out the latest information on the ground. It may also be possible to get this information from your hotel in Santiago.

Because it’s a much smaller city than Santiago, Valparaiso can be chaotic during protests, with transport affected by the demonstrations and a liberal use of tear gas by the authorities. It may be wise to steer clear of the city during the month of March.

That said, readers currently in Valparaiso have reported feeling safe by following common-sense measures (i.e. not approaching protests and asking for information from the owners of their hotels before leaving to explore the city).

On the ground information from a reader in Valparaiso:

It is safe in Valparaiso. Protests are only in the “flat part” of Valpo, no risks in Cerro Alegre and Concepción. As far as I know, it is just in the streets around Anibal Pinto (from the top of Cumming and Esmeralda Streets to Plaza Sotomayor). And protests may be calm if there is no policemen around.

Some incidents happened in Vina del Mar two weeks ago, but now it seems really safe too.

People just need to know that on Monday and Friday mostly, by the afternoon, protests may occur and it’s better not to pass by if there is the police.

Other thing that I noticed is the incredible mutual assistance between people when it comes to tear gas injuries, etc. The people vs police conflict is really striking! Thus to me, even if protesters wear gas masks and throw rocks, they would never show any violence against tourists.

Other parts of Chile:

Readers have also reported:

  • Weekend protests with buildings burned down and police officers using lots of teargas in Punta Arenas
  • Protests blocking the main road in Castro, Chiloé and causing short delays to traffic
  • Significant protests in Temuco, with lots of teargas
Posing in front of the towers in Torres del Paine National park
Travelling across Chile by bus could become difficult if a State of Emergency is reimplemented by the government.

Governmental recommendations

Both the US State Department and British Foreign Office recommend the exercising increased caution if you travel to Chile:

  • Be aware of your surroundings to avoid walking unintentionally into the path of a protest.
  • Do not actively seek out demonstrations. You could face arrest, detention or be banned from returning to the country if you are caught taking part in any sort of protest. The Guardian has published footage showing police firing at protesters, so getting involved in a demonstration is extremely dangerous.
  • If you find yourself within the vicinity of a demonstration, find a safe place to shelter. This can take the form of a café or restaurant, supermarket or any other nearby building, or try and get away from the location of the protest as quickly as possible.  

What does this mean for trips to Chile in the next few weeks and months?

Since the president agreed to a plebiscite on writing a new constitution in November, the situation has calmed considerably, although protests are still occurring in Santiago.

If you have a trip booked for the next few months, you will likely only be affected if you are visiting large cities such as Santiago and Valparaiso. However, if the government reimplements the State of Emergency, this will affect bus and plane transport across the country and could have a profound impact on your trip.

Regardless, it is recommended you keep an eye on the situation and consult the relevant travel advisories as issued by your government.

Further reading and information

This article isn’t intended to take a political stance on the situation, however, I am fully in support of any peaceful protesting by local people who deserve to live a dignified life, free of inequality and with full access to health care, education and a decent living wage.

If you are interested in learning more about the political context that predates the current protests, this English-language summary of the climate of governmental corruption and disproportionate use of sentencing for civilians and politicians matched with and a rise in living standards and inequality is an excellent place to start.

The New York Times have also written a balanced article examining how the Chilean neo-liberal economic system is failing its people.

Hashtags on Twitter that are being used by protesters and give a far broader view of what is happening (and what isn’t currently being reported in the media) include #ChileDespierta and #ChileNoEstaEnGuerra.

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Jen

Tuesday 17th of December 2019

Hey there,

Planning a trip to TDP in late February next year and would like to visit the wine region a few days prior. Given the current situation, we we’re planning to skip Santiago and head straight to Santa Cruz. However, it looks like the only way to travel from the Santiago airport to Santa Cruz is by bus meaning we would need to head to the bus terminal in Santiago. Do you have any info to share on if these terminals are safe or if there tend to be protests here given the proximity to the metro?

Thanks!

Steph Dyson

Friday 3rd of January 2020

Hi Jen, the terminal is safe and there are only minimal protests happening in Santiago now (generally Friday late afternoon/evening in Plaza de Italia). You won't have any issues but keep a firm eye/hand on your belongings as pickpockets are pretty rife in the bus station. Steph

Varanchai Chavaltanpipat

Saturday 30th of November 2019

Hi Steph,

I hope you are well and safe there. We are 5 people from Thailand planning to visit Torres del Paine in early April by flying from Buenos Aires to Punta Arenas. We would like to check some information for our planning as follow: 1. Is it good to rent a car at Punta Arenas airport to drive to TDP? 2. If it's good, do you have any suggestion about car rental company in Punta Arenas airport. As I checked some are not good and will try to avoid. 3. We plan to stay in a hotel in TDP for 3 - 4 days. Is it allowed to drive a car in TDP and stay there ? 4. For TDP entrance ticket, do we need to buy in advance or we can buy at the entrance.

Thanks and best regards,

Varanchai

Steph Dyson

Friday 13th of December 2019

Hi Varanchai, I always recommend that readers use RentalCars as they are generally the cheapest and give you information in English. I also generally use international companies rather than local companies as I have personally found the local companies to unreliable. Yes you can drive to TDP and stay there. And no, you can buy at the entrance. Enjoy your trip! Steph

TOM LocoLoco1

Sunday 24th of November 2019

Steph, Hi. Q: Is it true that a great many shopping arcades and 'Wal-mart' shopping Centres have been ransacked in some larger Chilean cities? How goes it travelling as of late Nov, 2019?

Steph Dyson

Friday 13th of December 2019

Yes a lot of them have been but that shouldn't affect travellers (unless you were planning on coming for the shopping - which I wouldn't recommend in Chile!). Steph

Belinda

Friday 22nd of November 2019

Thanks very much for taking the time to share this info. Much appreciated.

Belinda

Steph Dyson

Friday 22nd of November 2019

Thanks Belinda! Steph

Lisa

Thursday 21st of November 2019

Hi Steph,

Thanks so much for this information – it is very helpful as I'm planning my trip for December/January.

Just wanted to add that there have been protests in Puerto Montt over the past couple of days. From what I gather, they've started peacefully but have become violent in the evenings, so for anyone heading there soon it's probably a good idea to keep a close eye on the situation .

https://www.biobiochile.cl/noticias/nacional/region-de-los-lagos/2019/11/20/carabineros-dispersa-a-manifestantes-en-nueva-jornada-de-protestas-en-puerto-montt.shtml

#puertomontt on twitter has been a good source of on the ground information.

Thanks!

Steph Dyson

Thursday 21st of November 2019

Thanks so much Lisa, that's really helpful! Steph